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Barbeito Madeira Colheita Canteiro Verdelho 1996

Last summer I visited Madeira for the first time. The purpose of my visit was - as you would surely expect - to familiarise myself with the wines, and to visit one or two of the few remaining producers of the local wine. Once on the island, however, I found myself swept away with Madeira as a whole, its history, culture, its evident natural beauty and its friendly and welcoming inhabitants. I combined my trip with a holiday, and I am very glad I did so. I would return to Madeira at the drop of a hat.

The most exciting visit I made was to Barbeito. This family-owned company, established by Mário Barbeito in 1946, relocated to a hilltop position outside the town of Câmara de Lobos under the direction of Mário's grandson Ricardo Freitas in 2008. I made the slow climb up the narrow mountainside roads - steep cliff on one side, rocky precipice over a very low wall on the other - in my hire car, eventually parking up outside the new Barbeito facilities and stepping out into the sweltering, high-mountain heat, the lingering scent of hot pine oil hanging heavy in the air. Down in Câmara de Lobos it had been cool and cloudy, but here - just a short distance from the 580-metre Cabo Girão, Europe's second highest cliff face - I was above the cloud and the sun beat down relentlessly. Such conditions are, of course, perfect for the production of high quality Madeira, a process which requires heat to condition the wines.

I tasted many wines that day, and while it was undoubtedly the ancient rarities such as the 1910 Sercial and 1834 Malvasia that will linger longest in my memory (I think these two wines alone made the whole trip - air fare, accommodation, car hire and everything else - worth the time and expense) I am usually on the search for more realistic and affordable wines as well. These are the wines with which we can stock the cellar, and make our drinking lives interesting. And of all the wines I tasted the most striking came from the colheita range at Barbeito; these are wines from a single vintage, aged in cask for between five and nineteen years before bottling. In the case of Barbeito, the colheita range tends to represent the bottling of single casks rather than blends of several casks; this information is usually provided on the label, with details not only of the cask number but also the warehouses where the casks were stored during the aging process (as indicated by the inclusion of the letters a to e alongside the cask number - the hilltop facility is clearly just one of several in the Barbeito empire). My favourite on the day was the wine I feature here, which I have been able to add to my cellar since my return.

The wine in question came from cask 119, which as the label tells us saw out its time in warehouses b and e before eventually being bottled. What I liked about it most was its electric, vinous quality; in a range of wines from Barbeito it seemed rather more serious than many of the entry-level wines (which were good enough). On the whole this bottle showed much the same character, although I confess it shows a little more sweetness than I recall from my tasting in situ, where I described it as a 'not overtly sweet'. I think that comment has to be taken in the context of a Madeira tasting in which some wines were very sweet through, as tasting the wine in isolation I don't think anybody would overlook the residual sugar here.

In the glass the Barbeito Madeira Colheita Canteiro Verdelho 1996 has a very attractively burnished, orange-toasty-golden hue and it has a hint of the traditional green rim too. It certainly has a bright and lively nose, with scents of roasted almonds and tinges of citrus fruit, along with a slightly high-toned character which comes with nuances of toast and some more obvious dry-baked earth. There is certainly no shortage of complexity or interest here. To my surprise on the palate there is rather more flesh to it than I recall, a finding which no doubt reflects the residual sugar in this wine. There is sweetness, although not the fat obviousness that you see in some basic Madeira, it is more polished and balanced than that. In terms of flavour it has a savoury, baked-earth character, with nuances of lightly dried fruits behind. It comes together in a fascinating bitter-sweet paradox, and this lingers through the grippy finish. All in all this is a delightful and prejudice-shattering wine (quite different to the view I had of Madeira just a year or two ago) which is currently available, and which will last for decades if not centuries once added to the cellar. Just 918 bottles were produced, this is number 779. 17.5/20 (13/1/14)

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